Middlesbrough 3, Barnsley 1
This game merely confirmed what we already knew – that Middlesbrough are serious promotion contenders, while Barnsley face an almighty fight to avoid relegation.
The first half demonstrated the gulf in class between these two teams and it was not until Boro had coasted to a 3-0 lead that their opponents displayed the kind of spirited determination necessary if they are to avoid tumbling back into League One.
Barnsley’s disappointed head coach Jose Morais (pictured) said afterwards that he is aware of what his team needs to do to be in a better position, but it is one thing saying it and another doing it.
On this occasion he admitted: “We were aware of situations that could happen in the game and for some reason we didn’t control it in a good way in the beginning. In the first half we had problems to keep our organisation. This has happened in some games. We wanted to correct it and we couldn’t it.”
By the time the Reds had sorted themselves out any hopes of even one point had flown through the window and even then their revival owed a good deal to the fact that Boro, convinced they had all three points in their pocket, took their foot off the pedal.
If they are to retain any hope of Championship survival this cannot continue. The fact is that they have now won only two of their last 21 league games and are consequently on a frightening downward spiral, which needs to be checked immediately, because time is running out.
The situation has not been helped, of course, by the defection of former head coach Paul Heckingbottom to Yorkshire rivals Leeds United, leaving the new man in command with an unenviable task to stop the rot that had already set in.
With five more changes in the side which started in the Tuesday night defeat at Cardiff City, it seems that, while he appears to be settled on a formation, he is still trying to work out the best eleven players to implement it.
Against Middlesbrough he brought in Dani Pinillos and Dimitri Cavare at full-back; Adam Jackson returned to the centre of defence after injury; Christoph Knasmullner came in for his first start in place of the injured Brad Potts; and Ryan Hedges replaced Mamadou Thiam – but all the ins and outs failed to bring about any improvement.
A goal down inside the first minute, the Reds really did look prospective relegation fodder in the first half. Against a Middlesbrough side flourishing under the tutelage of sacked West Brom manager Tony Pulis they were under constant pressure and were fortunate to go in at the break only two goals adrift.
They provided little or nothing in the way of attacking intent and failed to deliver a single shot on target against a home team who were totally dominant.
The Reds got off to a disastrous start, former Barnsley loanee Ryan Shotton crossing for centre-back Daniel Ayala to give Boro the lead before 60 seconds had elapsed, and the situation deteriorated further in the 18th minute when Adam Traore made it 2-0.
The home team continued to breeze through the first half totally untroubled. They swung over lots of crosses which the Reds’ defence struggled to deal with and Pulis was right in saying that his side could have had more than the two goals.
However, they put that right eight minutes after the restart when Nick Townsend failed to get his hands to a corner and in-form striker Patrick Bamford nipped in to add Boro’s third – and his eighth in five games – from a couple of yards, with question marks hanging over not only the goalkeeper but also the rest of the Reds’ defence.
From that point onwards Middlesbrough, sensing that the game had now been won and lost, visibly relaxed. Their work-rate dropped; they lost their spark. As Pulis said, they took their foot off the pedal. And the Reds took advantage to stage a belated fight-back.
It never had any chance of succeeding. It was far too late in the day for that. But at least it showed that they had the character and the spirit to mount even a token revival after being so completely outplayed, and they were quickly rewarded with a goal from Keiffer Moore, who headed home from the rebound in the 58th minute after goalkeeper Randolph could only parry a piledriver from Gary Gardner.
Oli McBurnie was then denied by a terrific block tackle and substitute Stevie Mallan had a 30-yarder turned round the post by Randolph.
In between, Traore almost added a fourth for Boro when he streaked clear to set up a one on one with Townsend, but the Barnsley goalkeeper won that particular duel.
Nevertheless defeat means that the Reds remain just two points and one place above the relegation spots on an afternoon when three of their rivals – Burton Albion, Bolton Wanderers and Reading – gained a point on them, while another – Hull City – recorded a remarkable 4-3 victory over Norwich City in a game of four penalties, to increase the gap between them and the Oakwell team to four points.
It has to be pointed out that, due to postponements and cup commitments, the Reds have been forced to play the last four successive matches away from home, which has hardly helped their cause.
Now, however, they have three successive home fixtures – a re-arranged encounter with Norwich City on Tuesday; Millwall on Saturday and Lee Johnson’s Bristol City on Good Friday – and they desperately need to make the most of those.
It has to be remembered, though, that the Reds have not won at Oakwell since beating Birmingham City 1-0 on November 4!
Middlesbrough: Randolph; Shotton, Ayala, Gibson, Friend, Howson, Clayton, Besic (Baker, 66 mins), Traore, Bamford (Cranie, 83 mins).
Barnsley: Townsend; Cavare, Jackson, Lindsay, Pinillos; Williams (Mallan, 75 mins), Hedges (Thiam, 45 mins), Knasmullner (Isgrove, 61 mins), Gardner; McBurnie, Moore.
Booking: Gardner (Barnsley).
Referee: Andy Davies.
Attendance: 24,917 (1,037 visitors).